Tour Signs – The New York Times

Cyclists competing in this year’s Tour de France will spend almost a month on their bikes, with only two days to spare during their sport’s most famous marathon. When the race ends Sunday in Paris, the survivors and their teams will be able to look back on more than 2,000 miles spent navigating not only tens of thousands of turns, but punishing climbs and harrowing descents, tight turns and switchbacks. , narrow lanes and single apartments.

Still, with so much distance and so many possibilities for error, one question is not enough:

Do cyclists always seem to know where they are going?

There’s a team for that, too: Luke Curluet and his self-described “Arrow” band. They do not see much of the race itself; Instead, they are responsible for running each stage of the Tour de France for 24 to 48 hours and placing the bright yellow signs that play an important role in guiding cyclists in the month-long race.

Colloquially referred to in France as “les flèches” – the arrows – the 20,000 boldly colored directional signs used in the race are posted on street signs, lampposts and other permanent fixtures in number-coded patterns, letting cyclists know what to expect. course ahead. Their arrangement is not random: the more arrows are placed, the tighter the turns ahead. Uncertainty is the enemy.

“Every morning at 8 a.m., the team goes to put up our signs,” Kerluett said. “On the flatter stages, we install about 1,200 arrows. On mountain days with more elevation, we usually mount around 400. Our team is so in sync with this that it’s only 10 seconds from the time our van pulls up to the time the arrow is placed and our crew member gets back into the vehicle. .”

The simple signs are a bit of nostalgia, a sentimental nod to the reliance on them in the early days of the century race, long before two-way radios and handlebar-mounted bike computers offered riders accurate real-time information. Still, arrows still hold value, according to Ian Boswell, an American who competed in the 2018 Tour de France.

“There are technologies today that allow you to drive through scenes digitally and see what they’re like,” Boswell said, “but it’s not the same as walking through them in person.”

However, it is not always possible for each cyclist to personally scan every mile of road across the country, especially when surrounded by the center of a tightly packed peloton. To compensate, the team directors will review the course, carrying the entire route with video cameras, allowing them, hours before each day’s stage, to pinpoint areas of concern or opportunities.

“That’s why signs continue to play such an important role,” Boswell said. “As a rider, you are overwhelmed with information. You get so much information on the stage an hour before the race and the signs can be a helpful safety net.

Apart from their purely utilitarian value, les flèches have also taken on their own identity as collectibles in the world of cycling enthusiasts.

“The arrows, they’re symbolic,” said Rob Huxtable, an English fan who has attended 15 editions of the tour. “A lot of the old ones were just arrows without any markings, but now they have logos on the corners of the Tour de France. They are memorable because of the fact that you were there and saw the tour.”

While the Tour does not prohibit fans from taking signs as souvenirs, there is a code of conduct that outlines when and where signs can be removed. If the signs are stolen before the last cyclist of the stage, their absence can cause confusion on the road and create safety problems for the race.

“In 2019, the time trial where we stayed was a tight turn and there were four arrows,” said Ib Hansen, a devoted fan who has followed the race for more than 20 years. “I told my wife, ‘Don’t take it until the end of the day.’ If there are four signs, it means there is a sharp turn.”

Later, one of the signs disappeared.

“When one of the first riders arrived – BOOM! It fell off,” Hansen said. “And then my wife believed me.”

Kerluet said his arrow group estimates he’s found only 5 percent of the les flèches they’ve released, and on tour they regularly see RV windows plastered with arrows. Huxtable said he only had a pair in his collection, and Hansen initially demurred when asked if he planned to get his hands on a few more this summer.

“I think we have enough for now,” he said. But after a quick look at his wife, he seemed to change his tune. “Okay,” he said. “Maybe one more.”

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